Review: Smith Westerns “Dye it Blond”

After a first album of rambunctious energy and glam-punk orchestration  originated by Marc Bolan and modernized by the likes of the Strokes, and oozed a lo-fi quality that practically ensured round-the-clock play in your local record emporium, the Smith Westerns returned with a follow up of similar, but decidedly cleaner, songs. Get-in, get-out, get-laid is still the order of the day, but on the follow up to their self-titled debut, Dye it Blonde is the sound of a band that knows they put out one hell of a demo, and this one is for real. No more bullshitting around, these are the good takes that people are going to want to hear. And for better or for worse (more the former) it works to their advantage.

After the jump: sexy glam rock action! And a review!

1996 was a totally awesome year.

I speak from the point of view that today’s neo-garage bands lean more toward the edge of Ramones-style punk, who work with proper pop and R&B songwriting, and reliant on the ‘crappy aesthetics’ that made the first four classic Ramones records what they are. And if it’s not that, it’s the dangerous, razor-edge and acid approach of the Stooges that make a proper garage band. That’s about it. Menacing on so many fronts, whether aesthetic or lyrically, occasionally through riffs, there’s a reason to be deeply afraid of the band you’re listening to.

While their bright glam song style of their self-titled album didn’t suggest it, the lo-fi production did. On Dye it Blond, the band clearly has some money to throw at some studio time with a (*gasp*) producer who could clean up their pop melodies. Even then, there’s still some rough edges that poke their way through, even when the band performs a song of implied epic grandeur (it’s the organ swells, mostly).

There isn’t any danger here; these are some kids who are sad-eyed and love-lorn, eighteen and aware of it, and earnest about the music they play. And while the comparisons to T.Rex are daftly thrown about for being pop-rock and arty, there are subtle moments that feel like you’re listening to an actual take from Electric Warrior, an album that was composed entirely of raunch and sweat, but still soulful and reflective at points. “All Die Young” is the Smith Western take of “Cosmic Dancer,” though their circular lyrics don’t make it as obvious or personal as Bolan’s. Or, for another example, “Still New” has a guitar interlude around the chorus that expresses that exact sad-eyed, epic quality that perfectly captures the sense of youth, the dreaded ambiguousness of it, and having a better idea of what love is than your parents.

That’s not to say the Smith Westerns are decidedly immature (though the chorus to “End of the Night” suggests otherwise) and simultaneously sad. What makes this album fun to listen to is that it taps a lesser appreciated approach to garage rock, and that is that while they take influence to it, they do not feel indebted to it to be refrained from playing it in a modern sense. The album is loaded the twinkling pianos and organs in the background; vocals are flushed and full, with a supporting chorus, and occasionally, there will be a wash of fuzzy guitar noise that serves the melodies rather than covers them up. And for all of the artsy qualities that go along with the raggedness of the emotional build-up, or for all of the direct rips from whatever glam and garage band they happen to be listening to, what makes this album decidedly modern is it’s unabashedly  sunny production. Every track, regardless of intention or mood, is bright, perfect for all-day beach-going, or even late-night treks for the free slices the pizzeria gives away before they close. And while most bands would suffer under the weight of such heavy, over-thought production values, the Smith Westerns use it to their advantage to play a sort of duality that slowly emerges as the album bounces along.

It is a duality that comes through in the final track, “Dye the World.” Opens with a riff that could be a jam at any moment, it but actually recalls “Still New” quite a bit. But the third verse explains it all quite well: “Look in the mirror / Do you see a year or / Something that you miss? / Are you glamorous?” First, credit must be given for trying to rhyme ‘mirror’ with ‘year or.’ Second, here, in one verse, is a young rocker looking forward to being an old rocker, and wondering at what point does greatness begin? Are you better now in legends, or better then, when you still have youth? Is it now, or then?

Grade: B+ The Smith Westerns have riffed, cleaned-up, and smashed their way through a sophomore slump, and the results are just a touch of what may be in the future when these kids, inevitably, become more mature songwriters. Until then, their poppy hooks and tightly-constructed looseness (nobody is this cool without effort) is promise enough that the band will grow into something much more ambitious the way bands traditionally break their own patterns in terms of direction. It’s not a radical departure from their first album, but the obvious upgrades and changes to approach have made Dye it Blonde is the first album this year from a relative newcomer that is as classic as the albums it takes influence from.

[ed.: This was the original, uncut review of the Smith Westerns’ ‘Dye it Blond,’ as previously submitted to Mule Variations. You can read the edited version there, and be sure to click around — a lot of good stuff to be found.]
Here’s the video for the album’s first single, “Weekend.” Honestly, listen to it, and how anyone could give a shit that the Strokes came out with some halfhearted attempt to reclaim the sound of their first album, I have no idea. This is what the future of neo-garage sounds like, and it’s now, baby.

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